Russia gay law sparks outrage before Olympics

2014-01-23 11:36
A Russian gay rights activist holds a poster protesting against homophobia.  (File, AFP)

A Russian gay rights activist holds a poster protesting against homophobia. (File, AFP)

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Moscow - Russia's anti-gay legislation has prompted harsh criticism from international leaders, top athletes and rights activists ahead of its hosting of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.

In the latest protest, 27 Nobel laureates wrote an open letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin this month condemning the law he signed in June last year that punishes "propaganda" of homosexuality to minors with fines or even imprisonment.

"We hope that by expressing opposition to the new legislation it might be possible to encourage the Russian state to embrace the 21st Century humanitarian, political and inclusive democratic principles", the letter said.

The signatories to the letter published in Britain's Independent daily on 14 January, were mainly winners of Nobel prizes for physics, chemistry and physiology/medicine, but also included writers J M Coetzee and Herta Mueller.

Homophobic violence

Putin reaffirmed on 17 January that gay people should not be afraid to attend the Sochi games, while stressing they must avoid minors under the terms of the propaganda law, which equates homosexuality and paedophilia.

"You can feel calm, relaxed. But leave children alone please", Putin told journalists in Sochi.

Gay rights activists complain that the law banning "propaganda" among minors is so loosely worded that it can be invoked to ban any event with gay organisers.

The law has already prompted outraged reactions from athletes, actors and officials.

The leaders of several countries including the United States, France and Germany have announced that they will not be attending the game’s opening ceremony on 7 February in Sochi.

Their absence is interpreted as a protest against Russian rights abuses which have been highlighted by NGOs.

The rights situation in Russia is still plagued by "many serious problems", New York-based group Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday in an annual report that detailed "rising homophobic violence" after the anti-gay law came into force.

'Barbaric, fascist law'

US former tennis champion Martina Navratilova has slammed what she called the passive attitude of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) towards Russia's anti-gay law.

The winner of 18 grand slams criticised the IOC in December for "putting their head in the sand and not wanting to make any waves".

Earlier last year, 15 North American and European athletes, among them former world number one tennis player Andy Roddick, signed an open letter to the newly elected president of the IOC, Thomas Bach, asking him to clarify his position on the issue.

Russia's anti-gay laws "do violate the Olympic Charter," which opposes "any form of discrimination", the letter said.

The IOC has warned athletes that they are banned from any kind of demonstration or "political, religious or racial propaganda" during the games on pain of sanctions or even disqualification.

The situation has prompted some prominent figures to call for a boycott of the games, including British actor Stephen Fry, who slammed what he called a "barbaric, fascist law".

Casual homophobia remains widespread in Russia, where homosexuality was considered a crime until 1993 and as a mental illness until 1999.

Russia's leadership has faced a barrage of questions on the issue of gay rights but has insisted that the games will go ahead without any discrimination.

Putin vowed that "we will do everything to make sure that athletes, fans and guests feel comfortable at the Olympic Games regardless of their ethnicity, race or sexual orientation".

But deputy prime minister Dmitry Kozak warned that visitors must "not involve children", saying that those breached the law would be fined around $118.

Read more on:    hrw  |  ioc  |  sochi olympics  |  vladimir putin  |  russia  |  gay rights
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